WASHINGTON — Computer-savvy teenagers are testing their skills in cyber-contests designed to teach them how to protect the government and private companies from hackers.
The events are sprouting up across the country under the guidance of federal officials who are keen to boost their agencies' computer-defense forces and high school teachers who want to prepare their students for high-paying IT jobs.
At Baltimore's Loyola Blakefield prep school, a team of students meets twice a week after classes to practice for the Maryland Cyber Challenge, which is being held this week at the Baltimore Convention Center. At the event, they'll have to debug viruses from their computer and defeat mock attacks by cybercriminals played by IT professionals.
"They work together as problem-solvers, and they really like the challenge," says Steve Morrill, the school's director of technology and coach of the cybersecurity team.
The contests include "Toaster Wars," an online hacking game sponsored by the National Security Agency, and CyberPatriot, a national challenge that has grown from nine teams in 2009 to more than 1,200 this year.
During the final round of the 2013 competition, staged last March at the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor in Maryland, Kevin Houk and five classmates sat in a darkened room, huddled around a monitor and looking for any sign of attack. The teenagers, who at the time attended Marshall Academy, a program that draws students from public schools around Fairfax County, Va., were trying to prevent "black hat" programmers from activating hidden viruses in the students' computer network. The Marshall group had to protect its servers from outside intrusions and defuse ticking time bombs that may have been lurking inside.
"It's a lot like gaming, because you don't know what's going to happen," said Houk, who took computer classes at Marshall Academy. "You always have to keep on your toes."